Atlanta Fans Get It Right

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

 

Just two weeks after 20,000 no-show fans effectively doomed North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham to become a “one race per season” track in 2004, their counterparts in Georgia seem to have gotten the message.

An estimated 125,000 fans packed the Atlanta Motor Speedway Sunday, showing that they will not sit idly by while NASCAR spirits away one of their two annual Winston Cup dates. Sunday’s Bass Pro Shops/MBNA 500 boasted the highest turnout ever for an Atlanta spring race, providing new momentum to Speedway Motorsports, Inc., owners of the Atlanta track.

SMI is currently in court attempting to force NASCAR to award a second race date to its Texas Motor Speedway, prompting NASCAR Chairman Bill France, Jr., to remark recently that SMI President Bruton Smith might consider taking a race from Atlanta - where spring crowd counts have traditionally been low -- and transplanting it to the Lone Star State. Smith says there is no chance of such a move ever happening, and Sunday’s packed grandstands supported his defiant stand in spades.

The next track on NASCAR’s hit list? Darlington Raceway.

Like Rockingham and Atlanta, spring racing at the “Track Too Tough To Tame” has not traditionally been a box office success. And like Rockingham and Atlanta, Darlington has been mentioned as one of the tracks that could find its NASCAR schedule halved in the near future. Will South Carolina fans respond to that challenge as their counterparts in Georgia did, by spinning the turnstiles? Or will Darlington, like Rockingham before it, sit 20-percent empty Sunday, giving NASCAR one more good reason to shift next year’s race to a larger, untapped demographic market with better weather.

Apparently, Darlington’s inability to draw a crowd is not limited to the fans. Earlier this week, only 42 cars were entered for Sunday's “Carolina Dodge Dealers 400,” raising the possibility of a short field for the first time since the “New Hampshire 300” at NHIS in November of 2001. However, Brett Bodine, who is running a limited schedule of races in his #11 Hooter's Ford this season, announced plans late this week to drive the #57 Team CLR Ford Sunday, ensuring a 43-car field.

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Brad Leighton’s part-time schedule of Busch North Series racing will be fully sponsored.

Leighton’s new team, NDS Motorsports, announced a deal this week that will put Irving Oil on the rear quarterpanels of his new #35 Ford in six BNS races this season. Irving Oil is a regional energy processing, transporting, and marketing company, serving Eastern Canada, Quebec, and New England. In previous seasons, the company has backed the Busch North efforts of second-generation Maine driver Travis Benjamin.

“I’m very excited to be on board with Irving Oil,” said Leighton. “I’ve learned a lot in my career as a racecar driver, but the one thing I’ve learned that has helped me both on and off the track, is about surrounding yourself with good people. There is no doubt in my mind that with (Irving Oil’s) support, we will be in Victory Lane this year.”

NDS Motorsports is owned by Bob Torriere, former team manager for Dale Quarterley Racing, and will maintain Leighton’s cars and provide the crew, in partnership with Leighton’s former team owners, Steve and Peg Griswold. The Griswolds will continue to field their familiar #55 Chevrolet this season, with former series champion Mike Stefanik at the controls. NDS Motorsports will compete in the Irving Oil-sponsored 150-lap event at Maine’s Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in August, along with races at New Hampshire International Speedway, Dover, Watkins Glen, and Lime Rock.

"We made the difficult decision in September of last year to significantly reduce our involvement with the Busch North Series,” said Irving Oil spokesman Andrew Daggett. “That decision had everything to do with geography and limited resources, and nothing to do with Travis Benjamin or his race team. A large percentage of our stores are located in Maine and Atlantic Canada, outside of the core fan base for the Busch North Series, and without live television or radio coverage for all races, we could not justify the investment required to sponsor a car for a full season.

“The Brad Leighton arrangement is a perfect fit for us,” he said. “We can justify a six-race sponsorship, especially when they are all high profile, televised races at tracks surrounded by Irving Mainway stores.”

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Short (Track) Subjects…

…Yippee! Another new Winston Cup track in New York State! An initial meeting was held this week between local officials and a group of developers who say they have secured more than 900 acres of land in the Massena, Brasher and Norfolk, NY, area, for a proposed new NASCAR speedway.

The proposed “St. Lawrence International Speedway” would cover a 1¼-mile area, and could (could) be constructed in time to open in the summer of 2004. The meeting was held to give developers a chance to answer questions about the proposal, as well as to learn more about zoning and environmental requirements in the planning process. The fact that they have used NASCAR’s name in their discussions is solid proof that the group has had no contact whatsoever with the Florida sanctioning body, which takes a dim view of groups trading on its name and reputation in an effort to get their projects off the ground.

Once again, don’t hold your breath.

…The National Stock Car Racing Commission denied an appeal filed by driver Mike Wallace Wednesday, arising from a $3,000 fine issued to Wallace for comments unwittingly made within earshot of the FX cameras three weeks ago at Rockingham. Wallace acknowledged that the infraction had occurred, but argued that he had been unaware of the cameras during his heated exchange driver Shane Hmiel. Wallace also claimed to have declined a live interview with FX just moments before that exchange took place.

While finding Wallace’s testimony “succinct and sincere,” and applauding him for conducting himself “in a professional manner during an ensuing broadcast interview,” the commission stated that “NASCAR drivers…are high-profile celebrities. They should expect to be subject to media coverage in all working areas at the racetrack, and conduct themselves accordingly.” They also pointed out that Wallace’s fine was smaller than fines issued to others for similar infractions in the past.

…Looking for a way to fight off the frostbite? More than 20 American Canadian Tour racecars will be on display inside the University Mall in South Burlington on Saturday and Sunday, March 22-23, when it hosts the ACT Stock Car Show. Exhibit hours at Vermont’s largest indoor mall are set for 9:30 to 9:30 Saturday, and Sunday from 11 to 6. ACT’s Late Model, NAPA Tiger Sportsman, Allen Lumber Street Stock and Renegade divisions will all be represented at the show. Late Model cars scheduled to appear include those of 2002 ACT New England Dodge Tour champion Phil Scott, 2001 ACT titlist Pete Fecteau, Brent Dragon, Jamie Fisher, and Joey Laquerre.

…Like Brett Bodine doesn’t have enough problems. The Chemung, NY, native spent the entire off-season searching for someone to buy into his Winston Cup team as a co-owner. When no deals were reached, Bodine was forced to trim his 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup schedule to just a handful of races.

Two months ago, things went from bad to worse, when Bodine’s wife, Diane, was charged with threatening and harassing a woman associated with Brett’s sponsor, the Hooters restaurant chain. Diane Bodine accused the Georgia woman of having an extramarital relationship with her husband, and filed for divorce shortly after. This week, Brett Bodine was granted a domestic violence protective order against his wife, after telling authorities she had hit him and threatened to ruin him financially. As part of the order, Diane Bodine is barred from any track at which Brett Bodine is competing.

…ACT’s NAPA Tiger Sportsman division continues to expand, with a number of drivers set to step-up from the Street Stock and Renegade ranks. Last year’s Thunder Road Street Stock Champion, “Little” Brendan Moodie is set to lead the charge, along with 2001 Airborne Raceway Street Stock Champion Jim Bushey, Georgia’s Ryan Nolin, second-generation sisters Rachel and Renee Beede, Mike Wells, Scott Coburn, Joe Bouyea, and Matt Chandler.

…The engine bays at Roush Racing are jumping this week, after four of the six Roush engines in competition at Atlanta failed to make the checkered flag. Roush drivers Mark Martin, Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton all saw their powerplants go up in smoke, as did Ricky Rudd, whose Wood Brothers Racing team leases engines from Roush. Fellow Roush drivers Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle also had problems - Kenseth trailing smoke in the late going, while Biffle drove the final 150 laps with an illuminated oil-pressure warning light - though both made it to the finish.

Busch expressed frustration after the race, saying, "We've always had a problem under the hood. We try and try and try. We gain horsepower, but we're just not competing under the hood like the other teams."

Martin finished 42nd at Atlanta -- his second consecutive engine-related DNF -- and dropped from fourth to 25th in the Winston Cup point standings.

…Tracy Gordon has landed a sponsor for his 2003 Rookie of the Year bid on the American Speed Association circuit. AutoVantage, a 24-hour, toll-free emergency roadside assistance company, has signed to back Gordon’s GC Motorsports #16 Pontiac.

Gordon, a native of Strong, Maine, is a 12-time winner on NASCAR’s Busch North Series; most recently last September at New Hampshire International Speedway. He will begin his 2003 season on Saturday, March 22, at the USA International Speedway in Lakeland, Florida. The Lakeland race and all ASA races in 2003 will be carried live on The Speed Channel. Broadcast time for the opener is 9 PM ET.

…To the surprise of absolutely no one, Kevin Harvick is staying put with Richard Childress Racing. Harvick signed a new contract this week that runs through the end of the 2006 season, with sponsor Goodwrench holding an option for two additional years. Harvick said that despite rampant speculation in recent weeks, he never considered leaving the RCR team.

"Every time you don't have a long term agreement you're a target (for other owners)," he said. "We began talking about this six months ago. It was just a matter of putting it together. I don't think there was ever any question that Richard was committed to me, (but) I think I wasn't as committed to him, even though I wasn't thinking about going anywhere else.